Why learning basic Dutch is not enough: Beyond gezellig

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Donald Fleming, a teacher at UvA Talen, shares some insights on learning Dutch in Amsterdam, where he teaches English to students from all over the world.

"Ik ben goed bezig". I'm good busy. Now I know what that means, but at first, I didn't get it. When I just moved to the Netherlands, I could survive but I wasn't really ingeburgerd (integrated). I had no deep understanding of culture, society and mentality, let alone of official structures or unspoken expectations.

Nowadays I'm goed bezig: I speak Dutch. Or better said: I do my best. The learning process is ongoing and in many ways parallels my self-perception of my status as an expat in the Netherlands.

As with all relationships, you never know how they might end up. Mine has turned out to be long-term, but as I often explain: "I'm an Amsterdammer, but I'll never be a Dutchman. And yes, to be an Amsterdammer you do have to speak at least a little Dutch!"

A case for Dutch

In the '90s it was not uncommon to hear people say: "Why bother to learn Dutch? You don't need it. Everyone speaks English". Not anymore. The perception among Dutch natives is that while multiculturalism is appreciated, integration is important.

Contemporary thinking is that those people living in the country ought to speak a minimal level of workable Dutch. Even the immigration services require non-Europeans to learn basic Dutch to gain a permanent status in the Netherlands. Still, Dutch is very easy to avoid and, sadly, many people still do.

This is a shame as language informs a lot about a way of thinking, and ideas are formed within the context of language.

Anyone who has spent time in the Netherlands knows that the Dutch have a particular way of thinking. To fully understand the peculiarities of the Dutch, what better way than to engage than in the language they think in?

How did I learn Dutch?

At first, I was motivated by curiosity about the culture that has produced a society that I did and still do admire: A liberal social democracy with a strong libertarian streak with lots of strong-minded individuals who take the rights and responsibilities of being citizens seriously.

It's a place where the quality of life, and standard of living, reaches huge segments of the population. Where individual innovation, inventiveness and initiative are highly valued. The Dutch are hard-working and there's great respect for being goed bezig.

Language says it all

Apart from the guttural "g" that is the bane of Dutch-learners' existence, Dutch is a rich and sometimes poetic language.

Getting beyond gezellig and lekker (those untranslatable ways of describing creature comforts), there are some other words that capture an essence not found in English.

Perhaps the most beautiful is uitstraling, which describes one's radiance and charisma. Or vrijen, which invokes "free", when describing making love. The Dutch also love to borrelen and babbelen, or just generally hang out, have a drink and shoot the breeze.

They like to relativeren, which is the rarely used English "relativise", and boils down to not making a drama about things. And of course, moet kunnen: despite all the rules, you can still do it.

Some tips on learning Dutch

If you decide to go for it, some tips:

 Listen closely

To start with, listen closely. Simply put, don't tune out when you hear Dutch, but let it come into your consciousness. When the conversation switches, don't drop out! 

Read aloud

Read out loud and try to say things that you see in media and on the street, shops, and restaurants.

Talk to yourself 

Practise talking to yourself, and since everyone is on a cell phone anyway, no one will notice.

Conquer those vowels

Conquer those two-vowel sounds. For example, ui (which is a word in itself, meaning onion). A good way is to find a sound-alike in your own language and try to get the tongue feel.  Ui, to my ear, is like what one utters when they get pinched: "Ouch!" or like that regal bird, the owl. See if you can make a sentence: "Er zit een muis in het huis" (there's a mouse in the house) and repeat.

The right timing

Short and long sounds make a big difference in Dutch. With the double-double, the long aa, ee, oo, play with finding the right timing, and learning the difference between them and the short: mat or maat, ton or toon, ver or veer.

Learn a song

The Dutch love sing-alongs, and having a few tunes under your belt opens up a whole world. A few musts include: Lang zal hij leven (Happy Birthday), Aan de Amsterdamse grachten, and Zing, vecht, huil, bid, lach, werk en bewonder.

Don't give up

Try not to give up- even when "they" switch, keep trying in Dutch. Go for it, even if you make mistakes. Moet kunnen. Not only would it be greatly appreciated, it'll change a lot about the way you interact with the place you live.

Donald Fleming (New York, 1960) first came to the Netherlands in 1989 to teach at the Theaterschool Amsterdam (AHK). As a dancer and performer, choreographer and teacher he worked extensively in Europe and the Americas.

He settled permanently in Amsterdam in 2008, where he works as a language teacher, life-coach for handicapped teenagers, and gardener. He has taught at UvA Talen since 2014.

Donald Fleming teaches at UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam. Their fast-paced courses help students make rapid progress learning English, Dutch and nine other languages. Follow UvA Talen on Facebook.

Donald Fleming


Donald Fleming

Donald Fleming (New York, 1960) first came to the Netherlands in 1989 to teach at the Theaterschool Amsterdam (AHK). As dancer/performer, choreographer and teacher he worked extensively in Europe and...

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